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Blackmark by Jean Lowe Carlson

Blackmark by Jean Lowe Carlson
4.5
Book Name: Blackmark
Author: Jean Lowe Carlson
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: June 8, 2016

If you’ve followed my reviews on Fantasy-Faction, you know how I nearly gave up on some of my now-favorite books and series like Alec Hutson’s Crimson Queen and Phil Tucker’s Chronicles of the Black Gate. Add Jean Lowe Carlson’s Blackmark, book one of The Kingsmen Chronicles as yet another story I almost threw down after a couple of chapters, but persevered only on my indomitable will, and because I shelled out eight bucks for the audiobook. Once again, I am happy my miserly tendencies won out over my impatience, and I discovered a wonderfully layered novel with spectacular worldbuilding, a complex plot with layers of intrigue, and compelling, damaged characters.

As with many seminal works, the story centers around an ancient blood feud, reminiscent of Montagues vs. Capulets, Jedi vs. Sith, and Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift. In the case of Blackmark, it is the highly-talented race known as the Alrashemni against the shadowy cabal known as the Khehemni. For centuries after they left their original homeland, the Alrashemni people have served as Kingsmen to the realm of Alrou-Mendera: with their many genetic and trained skills, they are the king’s elite peacekeepers, ambassadors, adjudicators, and tattoo artists. The story is set in motion when the king questions their loyalty, and demands that they renew their oaths to the throne.

Fast-forward ten years. Condemned as traitors, the Kingsmen have disappeared. The king has just died, leaving his unproven daughter as heir apparent in need of a husband, while war brews with neighbor Valenghia. If you think it feels like an insidious plot rivaling The Phantom Menace, you’d be right; except it lacks a whiny Anakin Skywalker shouting, “Yippee!”

Instead, we have the damaged cast of four surviving Alrashemni, who at the time of the betrayal, were just a year short of attaining full-fledged Kingsman status. They, along with the younger Alrashemni, were captured and given the choice of joining dangerous military units, or being put to the sword. At the true start of the story, all still carry the physical and emotional baggage of the betrayal, as well as survivor’s guilt. Gifted with danger sense, Ehlol is finishing his service with a mountain patrol; and hopes to find his twin sister Olea, who has become a palace guard intent on finding out who is behind the Kingsmen betrayal.

Meanwhile, his former lover, Ghrenna can see the future, but has opted to become a junkie thief instead of selling lottery numbers. The core group of characters is rounded out by Dherran, a particularly bitter man who fights in bare-knuckle competitions throughout the land. Love, duty, and survivor’s guilt drive these characters and fuels their interactions with a large, mostly memorable cast of characters. Allies and enemies hide in every corner, like the roaches in my old apartment in Taiwan.

The plot resembles Shrek’s description of trolls: It’s an onion, not in the smelly way that makes your eyes cry; but rather, when one layer is peeled away, it reveals yet another. We start the story wondering why the king accused his Kingsmen of treason; then, who would want the Kingsmen gone; then later how they disappeared. Remember how I said that the first few chapters almost lost me? I went back to read them, to remind myself what I didn’t like; and all I can say is that once you know the entire plot of book one, the first few chapters are brilliant. There is so much foreshadowing that I could appreciate those chapters the second time around. I ended up re-reading much further than I intended.

Since I mentioned Blackmark in the same sentence with indie favorites Crimson Queen and Chronicles of the Black Gate, here is yet another comparison: Carlson’s writing style is elegant: a combination of Tucker’s flowing prose and Hutson’s flair for the perfect word to convey the right image. Combat flows vividly, as does the scenery and worldbuilding. She does overuse said-isms, though it didn’t stand out to me as many of the other self-published works I’ve read; and I do wish she would cut out her frequent use of the word suddenly.

I rate Blackmark a 9.323 on my purely objective rating scale (the equivalent of Taiwan-style street-food fried chicken), and give the author her 7th Seal.

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